A Brief History of How to Be Successful


1760s to 1890s: Success = Who You Are and What You Do

I met a man last fall who left Minneapolis to become a shopkeeper in Colonial Williamsburg, VA. He moved, he said, because, “they would throw a net over my head if I dressed in Colonial garb in Minneapolis.”

He was attracted to the simplicity of expectations in this period-themed town: work hard, pursue virtue, contribute to the community. He represented a time in America from the 1760s to the late 1800’s where most people’s success in society depended upon their ethic, character and family reputation.

1890s to late-1900s: Success = Who You Know and How You Influence

The Gilded Age, from the late 1800s to the turn of the century, brought disruptive change to the global economy. With new methods for transportation and production, corporations and urban centers developed large-scale systems. New understandings of the brain by psychologists like Sigmund Freud brought on more complex methods of mass sales and marketing.

In the early 1900s, Dale Carnegie began teaching and writing to a largely urban, aspiring white-collar worker who knew that ethic, character and family reputation were not enough for advancement. What they needed was the ability to “win friends and influence people” amidst bureaucracy and corporate hierarchy.

Late 1900s to present: Success = Who You Trust and How You Connect

By the 1960s, computer technology was beginning to dominate business culture as companies like IBM, and then Microsoft and Apple, began to drive the global economy.

Today, technological innovation is accelerating and widening the impact of constant change. Access to information and markets allows healthcare and banking systems to consolidate, new retailers to succeed online and corporations to make acquisitions in developing countries.

With career paths less well-defined and “tried and true” models of success no longer reliable, aspiring leaders have to improvise. A colleague of mine who’s an improv artist taught me this year that improvisation thrives in the context of vulnerable human connections.

So how do you succeed in world that demands you “make it up as you go along” while maintaining your human connections?

A post from Open Culture on Del Close’s Eleven Commandments of Improvisation provides helpful guidance for today’s lack of predictability. What follows are four of the eleven commandments, along with my commentary on each:

1. Always check your impulses. We need to respond to change rather than react to it. Keep your inner monologue in check to ensure self-compassion rather than self-criticism.

2. Your prime responsibility is to support. By embracing your role as a “supporting” actor, you form important and inter-connected networks of collaborative success through change.

3. Trust…trust your fellow actors to support you; trust them to come through if you lay something heavy on them; trust yourself. Cultivate a culture of vulnerability-based trust. It allows people to fail and grow to meet new opportunities.

4. LISTEN. Every person and circumstance can be a mentor. And every mentor can provide critical perspective and coaching to grow through change.

Ethic, character and reputation are still important. Winning friends and influencing others is still necessary. Improvisational human connections help us to succeed amidst constant change.

For more on this topic, please join me on December 10 in Minneapolis for a presentation and discussion on how leaders grow today in this period of constant change.

What’s one key to success you’ve found in today’s context of change?

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